ROME – As the possibility of a deal between the Vatican and China draws closer, the former bishop of Hong Kong says he is “optimistic” for the upcoming accord, calling those who oppose it “unreasonable,” and added that the situation of Christians living there is in the “broad sense” better.

Former bishop of Hong Kong, John Tong Hon, 78, told a small group of reporters, including Crux, that throughout the centuries China “has improved greatly” with regards to its treatment of Christian minorities.

“If you have a really far-sighted vision of China, I think that you will find that China is more open, civilized and close to the outside world,” Tong said.

The cardinal made these remarks after the morning session of a conference on “Christianity in the Chinese Society: Impact, Interaction and Inculturation,” which is taking place March 22 – 23 at the Gregorian University in Rome.

The proposed agreement between China and the Vatican is intended to resolve chronic tensions over the appointment  of bishops, with the Vatican insisting on the pope’a autonomy and Chinese authorities asserting the right to name bishops to protect against foreign influence.

Under the terms of the deal, the Vatican would propose a set of acceptable candidates for a bishops’s post and the selection would be made by the Patriotic Association, a body set up by the government to govern Catholic affairs in the country. Observers regard it as an extraordinary concession by the Vatican, which historically has resisted such intrusions on papal prerogatives.

During the conference, Tong had stressed that “dialogue is an indispensable feature of our modern world,” adding that if Christianity and China “take a further step, we will find ourselves getting closer and closer to each other and becoming friends on the path to the truth.”

This take is similar to his positive approach regarding the possibility of a Vatican-China deal on the appointment of bishops, which he described as being “reasonable.”

Tong’s predecessor, Cardinal Joseph Zen, has instead been vocally against the deal, describing it as “evil” and a “shameless surrender.” To this the cardinal responded that “everyone can express his own opinion,” but later added that opposing this possible Sino-Vatican accord would be “unreasonable.”

The Chinese cardinal also said that Pope Francis is generally well received in the Asian nation due to his “humility,” “farsighted vision” and the way he incorporates the message of the Second Vatican Council.

Finally, concerning the rise of Protestant proselytism and conversion in China, Tong said that the requirements for conversion to Catholicism are much stricter, requiring up to one year and a half in Hong Kong. “It’s not fast-food,” he said adding that the number of faithful in the two denominations could not be compared.

Following are excerpts of the interview:

What is the situation today for Christians living in China?

Regarding China, I am also a foreigner. I’m not the insider, I can offer you a little bit of my impression.

I was born in Hong Kong, I am now going to be 79 years old – I am not young – when I was two years old the Second World War started and the Japanese occupied Hong Kong. My parents brought me to China and I stayed in China, for survival of course, for three years and eight months. When I reached six years old in 1945 and WWII ended and the Japanese and Germans surrendered. My father at that time got a job in South China, therefore I stayed there. Already after WWII, the communist and the government that is now present in Taiwan, had already started to fight in Northern China. So many soldiers and refugees begun coming down from the northern part of China to the south, we saw because we were living in the southern part of inland China. I saw so many refugees. Very soon, in 1949, the communists took over China and expelled the nationalist government to Taiwan.

I did not leave right away when it happened. I stayed there for one year and a half more after China became communist China. I saw in the beginning that nothing happened, no big change was clear, but after more than a year and a half they started to purge the land owners and also started to expel the foreign missionaries in China and therefore some of our priests [were taken away] and also some of our relatives. I left in 1951 so I saw a little bit of what had happened in China at the beginning of the communist regime.

After China reopened in 1980 and I was charged with reentering China, I also made a lot of trips to visit the Church in China, particularly in the ’80s and beginning of the ’90s. At least a hundred times, so all the different parts of China.

Compared with what happened before reopening and after reopening, so in a general picture, I think China has already improved greatly. Sometimes you find that this [topic] is a bit tightening. China is huge! You cannot use this case or that case. But if you have a really far-sighted vision of China, I think that you will find that China is more open, civilized and close to the outside world and I think that generally the situation in the broad sense is better.

So you are saying that China is more open? More tolerant?

Yes, yes. In the future… it should be! Because the people can come out from China. Now they can, almost all of the people, come to Hong Kong or outside of China as a visitor for one week. So, their eyes are opened, they can see the outside world. They have of course higher expectations.

And also, the officials – they are not stupid- most of them know the expectation of most of the common people. So, on one hand, they want to exercise their authority over the common people, but at the same time they have to make compromise. So from time to time they, there is a tightening, but other times they loosen policy. In the long run, China will be – in my view – wider, wider open. No other way.

If I were the officials, I would do similar things. I am optimistic.

Today in your opening remarks you spoke about the importance of dialogue and communication between the Chinese authorities and the Vatican. In February you referenced an upcoming deal between the Vatican and China, saying that you were optimistic. Is that still true?

Yes, I am still optimistic. This is my belief: whatever is reasonable, can last for long. Whatever is unreasonable, will fade out. You can see this in all human history. Even in the history of China. Even [Communist dictator] Mao Tse Tung, was cruel and so strong, but finally… also the cultural revolution created a lot of chaotic situations in China but finally [they realized] this situation should be changed.

So, in this case reasonable would be the deal, right?


And unreasonable is to be against it.


A lot has been said in the media about your predecessor Cardinal Joseph Zen, who has been very outspoken about his opposition to this upcoming deal. What is your opinion on this and what does it say about the ongoing dynamics within China?

It’s a free world, so everybody can express his own opinion. Everybody can use his own mind, his own wisdom to discern. When you open your eyes and you open your ears you can listen to many, many voices.

As persons, we listen to everybody. So different opinions are up to your own wisdom to discern.

How is Pope Francis Received in China?

Generally speaking he is being loved by Catholics and also non Catholics.

He’s very humble. He’s a humble person loved by many people. If you are proud, actually, you get a lot of enemies. So I think this is also a difficult we have to be humble. Jesus was humble himself, he came down to the Earth and finally he was crucified.

The second thing, is that he has a farsighted vision. He’s not only seeing [right now], he’s seeing how to achieve the reign of God, which is to make the whole humanity to be one family. That we may all be brothers and sisters. So through the negotiations also promoted and advocated by the Second Vatican Council.

Sometimes we can lose something so we can achieve friendship and set an example for all others and all other people. So finally we become friends, and then eventually we become all members of one family. At that time the reign of God will be implemented on earth. That is our theology.

I was the teacher, although I am not a good teacher, I was trained here 50 years ago at the Urbanianum. At that time the Second Vatican Council was being held, and I witnessed the grand closing ceremony. And right away I was ordained a priest with more than 60 classmates by Pope Paul VI. So that is what we were taught, and we have also what we were taught to believe in. So, if you don’t believe that, that it’s only looking for [certain] things, that’s your business, that’s not my faith. So finally, we have to pray for the Church in China.

People have been talking about a deal with China for years, and now it seems that is pretty sure…

I don’t want to make any guess, it’s up to God’s will.

But if it does happen, is there something about Francis’s pontificate or diplomatic style that would allow the deal to happen? Is there something about the way he does diplomacy that would make the deal more likely than in the past?

If there’s any breakthrough, it’s God’s will, I don’t want to make any speculation. I’m not a prophet, I only follow our dogmatic teaching in the Church, and also the teaching of the constitutions issued by the Second Vatican Council. What I have learned in teaching in seminary, we pray for the Church in China, but I don’t want to make any speculations…during the year, almost three years ago, during the year of divine mercy, the Church in China, particularly, during that period, was also very happy to respond to the appeal made by the Holy Father. So, it shows that they are very positive about the Holy Father because they follow the instructions given by the Holy Father.

There is an interest in the Church in China, but there are a growing number of people adopting Protestant beliefs. Without a deal, is the Catholic Church losing a battle for souls?

No. According to what I learned from the reports, because every week I am visited by many missionaries from China – priests, sisters and laypeople – they approach me because they can travel, so they come out, they approach me and say they are from the villages. How are they? They are growing. Of course some move to the city to earn a better job, but the situation is improving. And they know that evangelization is very important, so they are doing such fine things there. Through the preaching and through their witnesses, their Christian deeds, they attract other people to believe in our faith. So I don’t think now there are less.

Also, on the other hand, we have our own requirement. When they come out, we set up some courses for them, for their formation, and show them what we are doing in Hong Kong. We also require one-and-a-half years of catechetical courses before receiving baptism. So it’s different. If you are Protestant, in some churches they only talk to you for two hours and they become Christians. So that’s two hours, we have one-and-a-half years, it’s different, so you can’t make such comparisons. You have numbers, but you also have quality. You cannot make such kinds of comparisons. It’s not fast-food.